The goals of this dissertation project are twofold. First, it will produce a descriptive grammar -- that is, a comprehensive, book-length phonological and grammatical description -- of the Xong language, spoken by nearly a million people in China's Hunan and Guizhou Provinces. Second, it will allow the collection of several hundred hours' worth of recorded Xong sentences, folktales, conversations, and other texts. All necessary data will be collected in Xong-speaking villages in western Hunan, and both grammar and recordings will be made freely available to the public upon the project's completion.
Although Xong has received some linguistic influence from Mandarin and other Chinese languages over the past several centuries, it is completely unrelated to them. Instead, it belongs to the Miao-Yao family, meaning that it is in fact distantly related to the Hmong language spoken in many parts of Southeast Asia and the US. The Miao-Yao family has been estimated to contain over a hundred mutually unintelligible languages, but it remains one of the least described language families in the world. Xong itself is a perfect example, as the language has been almost completely ignored in the English linguistic literature. This lack of research would be unfortunate for any Miao-Yao language, but it is particularly so in the case of Xong. The language has a number of unusual features, including nearly seventy distinct consonants (in contrast, English and Mandarin each have around two dozen) and eight distinct tones (Mandarin has only four, and Cantonese and Vietnamese each have only six). Xong displays several interesting grammatical features as well, including unusually rich systems of nominal prefixes, relative clauses, and ideophones.
This project will not only produce the most comprehensive linguistic description of Xong to date, but indeed the most comprehensive description of any Miao-Yao language. Furthermore, it will be able to serve as a model for similar descriptions of China's other understudied languages in the future. This award will also enhance the training of a graduate student.